Much of the coverage of the petrol wars today – including an entirely misleading headline in The Australian about Rudd “twisting” ACCC views – misses or ignores the underlying tactical shifts going on on both sides.

Undoubtedly the Government is under pressure on the issue. In particular, the Ferguson leak reveals that everything ain’t right in the Government, especially when it isn’t clear who benefited from the leak other than Brendan Nelson. Hint to the Prime Minister’s office – leaks by public servants are few and far between, but when you leave in place senior bureaucrats who enthusiastically served the previous Government, don’t be surprised if there is the odd dribble here and there.

But the issue didn’t run entirely smoothly for the Opposition yesterday. They bowled up eight questions, all to Rudd, on petrol prices, and didn’t get anywhere. You can tell, because they resorted to a censure motion in order to get a soundbite for the evening news. But the most interesting performance came from Assistant Treasurer Chris Bowen.

Bowen may look and sound like a good stiff breeze would knock him over, but he homed in on the issue of consumer empowerment that is, for all its failings, at the heart of the FuelWatch proposal. “It is time for the opposition to indicate whether they will stand with motorists against anticompetitive conduct or stand with those with vested interests,” he said, explaining that oil companies and petrol stations share pricing information that consumers aren’t currently permitted to see.

It took the Opposition a while to realise that Bowen was leading a flanking manoeuvre on this issue, and moved last night to shore up its defences, indicating that it would not be opposing the information-sharing aspect of FuelWatch, but would block the requirement for petrol stations to maintain their prices.

That’s not a full solution – the Government won’t let the Opposition pick and choose which bits of FuelWatch to support, and the whole point of enabling consumers to know what petrol prices are is missed if retailers can change them between the time they log on to the ACCC site and the time they get to the bowser (although, why 24 hours is the default period, rather than 12 or 6, isn’t clear). Expect the Government to keep emphasising the consumer angle in its defence of FuelWatch. It’s the best thing it has going for it.

Fortunately, the stench of petrol fumes has heralded the return of Emo Man in Brendan Nelson. EM has been in hiding for a few weeks, but he returned with a vengeance yesterday in a vintage performance in the censure debate by Nelson:

For those of us who live in the real world, tonight, Tuesday night, in every part of the country except Western Australia there will be queues of motorists up to half a kilometre long outside petrol stations… they will be there in their 20-year-old Mitsubishis, they will be there in their 10 year old Commodores with three kids in the back seat and they will be there in their Taragos with a wheelchair in the back… these are the men and women who are making decisions about whether they are going to buy processed sausages or chops…

Watch the video here, as Julie Bishop feeds Emo Man the Tarago line.

Oh the humanity! Wheelchairs! Twenty-year-old Mitsubishis! Processed sausages!

Hang on, what are processed sausages? Or for that matter unprocessed sausages? And, um, if this is so bad, isn’t it good that it’s not happening in Western Australia? I’m confused. Joe Hockey was so gobsmacked at this stuff he forgot to nod.

Nelson also issued a “we warn the Tsar” style demand that, should the Government eventually decide to remove the vicious “tax on a tax” GST on petrol, they must not raise other taxes to cover the cost. More magic pudding-itis.

This, and Nelson’s attempt to sew-up the meat-loving, wheelchair-using, fecund Mitsubishi owner vote, is only the most extreme end of the petrol madness that has overcome our political class. Heaven help anyone who dares to point out that motorists have, for generations, been being subsidised by the community for the congestion and pollution externalities they inflict on it.

Or, better yet, note that rising petrol prices are a brilliant way to both encourage the search for more oil and – for people with a perspective longer than the next five minutes – encourage greater fuel efficiency and the search for alternative fuel sources.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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